Watch Adam Savage’s Pedal-Powered Beest Machine Take Its First Steps

Adam Savage from MythBusters spent three days building a pedal-powered Strandbeest-type machine. Will it walk?

2 min read
Adam Savage pedal-powered beest walking machine
Adam Savage, former co-host of MythBusters, spent three days building a pedal-powered Strandbeest-type machine at the Exploratorium in San Francisco.
Photo: Theresa Chong

Adam Savage, the former co-host of Discovery Channel’s popular television show MythBusters, is accustomed to testing the limits of human ingenuity. Do you remember when he and his team of tinkerers tested the tensile strength of duct tape by suspending a car with it? After that episode, I never looked at my ratty duct tape the same way.

Since MythBusters ended earlier this year, Savage has had some extra time on his hands. Which in the case of an avid designer and maker like Savage means spending three days hunkered down at the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco building his latest creation. He called it the “Pedal-Powered Beest.” And the thing does look beastly, except for the bright-red All Star sneakers pinned to its 12 feet.

Savage’s Beest was inspired by the kinetic sculptures, known as Strandbeests, invented by Dutch artist Theo Jansen. Jansen’s structures are typically powered by the wind and made of PVC, but Savage wanted to build a human-powered version, as part of Exploratorium’s After Dark: BYOBeest exhibit, which celebrates Jansen and his creations.

Last night just outside the museum, fans huddled together in the cold to eagerly watch Savage’s 2.5-meter-tall machine crawl along the sidewalk for the first time. At the center of the truss system was the guts of a former bicycle and just below a tiny bucket seat for Savage to propel the contraption using his legs. Even though a few shoes slipped off in the shuffle, the crowd roared louder with every step that the man-machine took forward.  

We were there to capture all of the action and talk to Savage about the project. You can watch the whole thing on our Facebook Live Video below (our interview with Savage is after the demo and questions from the audience). 

[iframe https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FIEEE.Spectrum%2Fvideos%2F10154305605896182%2F&width=620&show_text=false&height=344&appId allowfullscreen=false expand=1 height=344 width=620]

An important part of the project was letting visitors get a sneak peak at Savage’s design and build process, especially the setbacks, and how he was able to overcome them (or most of them). 

“This entire project is a reflection of myself,” Savage told us, adding that he believes in a maker culture that incubates failure as a necessary step toward success. “I’m not a genius. I’m not smarter than you. I’m just a guy who’s interested in doing something, and I persevered, and I got a machine out of it,” he added.

Adam Savage Strandbeest machine Nice kicks! Photo: Theresa Chong

Savage explained that although he and his team had already pre-welded triangle sections and prepared custom made Teflon washers, it was still a challenge to assemble the structure. Midway through the demo, he climbed on the upper part of the machine to power it from above, instead of leaning on the seat.

“I didn’t know if it would support my weight. I didn’t realize that I had put the wheels in the right orientation to be able to ride it. But I did. And, that’s really cool,” he said.

Asked if he considered his machine a kind of robot, or perhaps a cyborg, he said: “It must be a cyborg because it uses me as a power system, so it’s more like a really elaborate wheelchair.”

The Conversation (0)

How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

Keep Reading ↓ Show less